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February 10, 2023

Instant observations: Embiid, Maxey combine for 62 in Sixers' win over Knicks

The Sixers rode Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey to a 119-108 win over the Knicks on Friday night, responding to a mini skid with a nice performance on their home floor.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• As has often been the case, Joel Embiid was one of the only good things the Sixers had in the first half of this game. Philadelphia's perimeter defense was porous, they missed some golden opportunities on offense, and the coach's lineup decisions were interesting. At least they had the big man, who bulldozed through New York's options at center and kept the Sixers within striking distance during the first half of play.

Embiid has been plenty efficient this year — it has been the best year of his career on that front — but this game was in a special zone with very few peers for him. The big man was ruthless with his touches, using every trick in the book to overwhelm the Knicks. He went off glass, inspiring visions of Tim Duncan as he operated near the baseline; scored on the move, taking passes in the pick-and-roll to get all the way to the rim; and as he tends to do, Embiid just simply shot over people, cashing out jumpers that most guys his size would never consider taking.

It seems strange to say during a night where he was this good on offense and piled up points like crazy, but it never felt like they got him the ball enough. There were periods in the first half where James Harden got too obsessed with running the clock down and trying to hit stepback threes, leaving Embiid to simply hang out on the perimeter. What a waste that was — it didn't matter how many bodies the Knicks threw at Philadelphia's star center, he managed to find a way to either make a shot or find the open shooter.

To Embiid's credit, he did not respond to that by trying to force terrible shots or bogging down the offense in order to make up for lost time. There was an ugly turnover (and a near turnover) late in this game with Embiid trying to quarterback the team, but he continued to trust his teammates deep into the fourth, searching the floor for shooters rather than going into hero mode.

In spite of how awesome his shooting effort was, choosing to play team-centric basketball was the right decision, with the Sixers getting quality looks as the Knicks scrambled to recover after doubling Embiid. Whether it was an open Niang three or a dunk for Tobias Harris on a cut, Embiid played a mature second half, and it was a huge reason they emerged victorious.

This game won't be remembered as fondly as some of his scoring explosions this year, but it was almost certainly one of his best of the season, an all-around dominant effort. 

• He has not shown up as frequently since returning to the lineup post-injury, but it is always nice to get a reminder of what Tyrese Maxey is capable of. All throughout the night, Maxey's presence on the floor was often enough to get Philadelphia rolling in the right direction. This is more a commentary on how the rest of the team played on defense, but he was one of very few players who actually had decent activity there, and it helped create a couple of extra possessions for Philly on a night where they needed every touch, every shot they could get.

There was a noticeable difference in Philly's pace whenever Maxey stepped on the floor, whether that was in halfcourt sets or fast breaks. Maxey was better at picking apart defensive mismatches than Harden was for most of the night — there was a run in the second quarter where he kept going at Obi Toppin, drawing repeated fouls on drives that helped put the Sixers in the bonus with plenty of time to spare in the period.

More importantly, Maxey brought his shooting boots to this game. Finding a consistent rhythm has been a challenge for him, and understandably so, with Maxey not able to get the easy catch-and-shoot looks that are a product of playing alongside Harden in the backcourt. But as he got rolling attacking downhill, Maxey managed to transfer that success further and further away from the basket, growing in stature as the game inched closer to the finish line. 

If you've ever played a single game of basketball, you can probably understand this is nothing more than a pure confidence shot. In a tight game with all the reason in the world to hunt the best shots possible, Maxey got the ball in transition, said screw it, and cashed out:

On a lot of Philadelphia's end-game possessions, Maxey was given the chance to run two-man game with the big man, which is certainly a departure from how things have gone in recent weeks.For the Sixers to get where they want to go, they need to have Maxey in this sort of mindset, even if it means living with some bad misses and questionable shot selection. There's no room for timid Maxey on a title team. There's plenty of room for this dude.

• Georges Niang added approximately his millionth momentum three of the season in the fourth quarter. Business as usual.

The Bad

• The Sixers simply aren't good enough on defense right now. Since the start of the new year, they have been a bottom-third team there, off the pace of a playoff team let alone a championship team. They do not look like a team with a plan or an identity on that end of the floor, and their only chance to win games has been to put up a ton of points. They've succeeded with that strategy because they have two of the league's top offensive talents and firepower elsewhere, but this just isn't good enough.

What's irritating about it is that the Sixers certainly have enough guys to at least be pretty good on that end, even if they're not among the true elites. Embiid is an awesome rim protector, Harris has gotten better over the years, Tucker is a good team defender, Melton creates lots of steals and blocks, the guy they just traded for has a strong defensive reputation, and so on. You can't pin everything on guys like James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, who have big issues on defense but aren't dragging the team down on their own.

Overhelping might be the single-biggest problem for the Sixers on defense right now, as it exposes the athleticism they don't have. You can see the justification for trying to shrink the floor while working to stop a guy in the midst of a heater, and Jalen Brunson was absolutely rolling in the first half of this game. But P.J. Tucker pinching toward the paint isn't doing anything except for guaranteeing that his man is going to get a clean look at a three a moment later. And that's not picking on Tucker — most of the roster is going to end up in no man's land along with him after overhelping — but he is a frequent culprit and has a much smaller margin for error than their younger, springier players.

• Perhaps Doc Rivers should test out one of the three different starting lineups he claims to have. De'Anthony Melton has been mostly good this season, but he wasn't solving any of their problems in this game.

I absolutely understand the urge to start Melton and put a more cohesive defensive unit on the floor, but that lineup is simply not good enough to justify this being an autopilot decision. Rivers has pushed back when asked questions about it, noting there will be matchups that will dictate his decisions there, but what matchups is he hoping for? The Knicks started a backcourt of Brunson and Grimes in this game, which is not exactly overwhelming you with size and athleticism.

It would be one thing to keep going to Melton if Maxey struggled, but he was one of your few impact players in this game, and arguably deserved more time than he got. Stuff like this is why Rivers does not have the trust of the fanbase — he has to be willing to respond to the game that's in front of him, rather than what he's hoping for the game to be. 

• The line ended up looking fine in the end but I did not love this James Harden game. A little too wrapped up in one-on-one matchups when he could have just been running the offense. When his focus was on setting up Embiid and keeping this group rolling, they played their best basketball of the game.

The Ugly

• The Sixers acquiring a guy at the deadline and having him available to play the very next day feels like an absolute miracle. Jalen McDaniels was clearly excited to leave the Hornets and play for a team that has actual aspirations this season.

Of course, Rivers decided he wasn't going to play McDaniels despite him being available, going back to Danuel House Jr., who hasn't been in the real rotation in months. The commitment to the bit is impressive. 

On a serious note, I feel like it sends a bad message to get a new guy/your only deadline acquisition in the building and ready to go sooner than expected, only to let him chill on the bench for the game. It's not like the guy who got the minutes instead of him has played well this year, and you certainly can't argue that the bench played well enough to say, "Well, okay, let him have a day or two to absorb team concepts." Get him on the floor and let him figure it out.

• Salute to the guy who showed up in a "SHAOLIN" No. 36 Knicks/Wu-Tang Clan jersey. Wu-Tang is forever. 

• Philadelphia's zone defense working at times on Friday night is not the same as their zone defense actually being good on Friday night. They gave up practice shots to the Knicks throughout this game with very little resistance, and they were fortunate the Knicks had some cold spells in the final two quarters.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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